Diaper Patterns - Part 1

By Kandace Merric

Originally published in Needle Pointers , June/July '96

Editor's Note: Kandace Merric, of Oceanside, New York, is Level Two-certified in canvas by the National Academy of Needlearts (NAN), which also awarded her the Louise Downing Scholarship to pursue Honors Certification. Her original designs have won numerous awards and her award-winning piece, "The Dog Show (It's All in Black and White)," which shows her love of dogs and needlework, was accessioned for the NAN permanent collection. She has taught at the NAN Assembly, ANG National Seminar, EGA and ANG chapters, and shops in the New York metropolitan region. She has had articles published in _NANthology_ (the NAN newsletter). In addition to this article and a project on diaper patterns, Needle Pointers has published Kandace's "Art Nouveau Angel" and her series project, "Guardian Angels of Household Pets." Kandace is currently involved in doing rescue work for the West Highland White Terrier, and has stitched rescue group logos and her own designs for fundraising. She is also working on a series of booklets of charted Wesite designs.

Diaper patterns? No, we are not going to learn about baby's most important garment. That diaper emerged from a square of soft, absorbent cotton or linen woven in an allover diamond-shaped repeat pattern called a birdseye weave. In fact, the definition of this type of allover pattern on fabric or another surface such as on pottery or in brick, tile, wood or ironwork predates this garment by several centuries. Diaper patterns can be found in the decorative art of most cultures. Nations with any skill in the use of ornamental art show great ingenuity in the creating, planning, and use of diapers. The variety of designs created by these different cultures is a wonderful world to discover.


The Random House Dictionary shows the roots of the term "diaper" to be from the Medieval Greek (diaspros: white or pure), Medieval Latin (diasprus: a kind of precious cloth), Middle French variation (diaspre) and Middle English (diapre, dyaper, diapery): a kind of ornamental cloth.

That species of design in which leading features or devices occur at regular intervals and which are enclosed or connected by geometrical or flowing lines, sometimes independent and at others forming integral portions of the device.
W. and G. Audsley, Designs and Patterns from Historic Ornament , 1968.

Diaper is a fabric with a distinctive pattern - an allover pattern consisting of one or more small repeated units of design (as geometric figures) connecting with one another or growing out of one another with continuously flowing or straight lines, or the surface is wholly occupied by the successive units, the outline of one forming part of the outlines of the adjoining units.
Webster's Third New International Dictionary

Textile fabric woven with a small and simple pattern formed by the different directions of the thread with the different reflections of light from its surface and consisting of lines crossing diamond-wise with the spaces variously filled up by parallel lines, a central leaf or dot, etc. - the geometrical or conventional pattern design forming the ground of this pattern. A pattern or design of the same kind used to decorate a flat surface.
The Oxford English Dictionary.

A unit of design, which when repeated enough times, forms a visual diagonal in both directions.
Muriel Baker, The X Y Z's of Canvas Embroidery, 1971.

A term originally denoting a rich material decorated with raised embroidery. It is now generally employed to denote figured linen cloth, the design being very small and generally diamond-shaped.
S.F.A. Caulfield, Encyclopedia of Victorian Needlework , 1972.

A pattern or network of one or more repeating units, constructed in such a way that the outline of each unit forms part of the outline of the neighboring unit.
Richard M. Proctor, The Principles of Pattern.

Cloth woven with ornamental devices, geometric patterns, scroll work or lattice work or leaf and flower designs. Hence, something that decorates or ornaments as if with figures - a surface decoration consisting of a system of reticulations each of which contains an ornamental unit, as a flower or leaf.
Funk and Wagnall, New Standard Dictionary of the English Language.

Originally thought to be the name given to a linen fabric woven in small ornamental patterns, it also describes a small geometric filling pattern used in evenweave fabrics. The distinguishing characteristic is arranging the pattern in staggered horizontal rows to give the effect of diagonal lines.
Peg Doffek, Rosemary Cornelius, and Sue Hardy, article in NEEDLE POINTERS, Vol. X, #2, 1982.


Ann Strite-Kurz, in her "An Analysis of Diaper Patterns and Their Specific Uses in Canvas Embroidery," 1982, found that: "Perhaps the earliest evidence of the use of the term diaper occurred during the Shang Dynasty in China (1655-1122 B.C.). The silk merchants active at the time referred to certain patterned silk woven fabrics as "diapron" during this period, but after the 12th century these same fabrics were called damask weaves.

The Egyptians enclosed their favorite motifs of papyrus and lotus flowers with connected or curved lines.

The Arabian and Moorish designers used diapers of a strictly geometric nature in their tile, brick, and grill work, while Persian designers arranged natural forms in a superbly artistic way. Japanese diapers were composed of natural and geometric patterns.

The widest range of ornamental diaper pattern is in Gothic art, which includes architectural sculpture, tile, metal and wood work, stained glass, textiles, embroidery and pottery. The textile design diaper of medieval times is usually a repeating diamond or lozenge shaped pattern in which the warp and woof threads cause a subtle reflection of light. Heraldic ornamental sections sometimes used small geometric repeat patterns related to a diamond or square separated by parallel lines. The spaces left by these lines could then be decorated or left alone. These areas could be diagonal, horizontal, or even vertical.

Diaper is a linen or union fabric woven with a small geometric design. Found in the inventory of Dame Agnes Hungerford (1523) is 'a tabylcloth of dyapure' (Nichols 1859).

There are references made of allover patterns dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary states that Shakespeare used the term in 1591 in connection with a piece of cloth such as a towel or napkin.
"Let one attend him with a silver basin, Another bear the ewer, the third a diaper."

Mary Clubb relates the following notes of history in the introduction of her EGA Group Correspondence Course, "Making Diaper Patterns Work," 1988. "References were made in customs records of exports of diapers and other textiles from London to Virginia and Maryland for the year 1763. A cotton diaper bedspread determined to have been handwoven in New England embroidered with candlewick during the late 18th to early 19th century was found at Stratford Hall in Virginia: The typical diaper pattern was a twill with the weft threads thrown to the face to form a diaper.

In the United States, weaver James Alexander's account book, which dates from 1798 to 1831, includes under the heading diaper all small figured linens, but especially the linen fabrics used for tablecloths or towels which have patterns composed of square and oblong forms. He lists damask diaper as having the same type of geometric pattern; but the basic weave is a broken twill or satin, giving a fuller, richer effect. Damask is a glorified form of a damask diaper."

Two favorite designs of Napoleon Bonaparte were a bee motif or his initial "N". They were often powdered on a field of blue outlined with gold threads in a diamond or lozenge shape. Variations of it were used on draperies, wall coverings, and upholstered items.

A major contributor of a larger form of diaper pattern was William Morris, one of the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement in England during the second half of the 19th century. He created motifs that were a foot or larger in size and repeated them across the fabric, possibly just three or four times. While many of these designs were not connected by lines, when viewed at a distance, a diagonal pattern could be seen.

Many examples of diaper patterns are still to be found today. From quilt patterns on your bed and wallpaper in your kitchen, to carpets and tiles found under your feet, to the silk tie you have just purchased, diapers are everywhere.

In ancient times, designers created band patterns. They experimented by imposing them on each other at different angles to form other patterns. As time progressed, the process widened into other methods of composition. These imposed band patterns were quite varied, with different rhythms that linked units with bands or borders. The areas that remained open were left open or adorned with a single motif. A designer has control over all aspects of these diagonal, horizontal, and vertical rhythms.

The four drawings below show how some mosaics and tartans were created by crossing bands.

"Roman mosaics and some tartans were created by crossing bands of different colored horizontal and vertical stripes. Diagonal crossings formed the diamond repeat which is one of the most useful bases ever devised. By drawing horizontal bands across the diagonal net of solid bands, the complicated linear crossings outline a six-pointed star."
From Archibald Christie, in "Pattern Design", 1969, page 6.

Look for Part 2 on February 1, 2002!